An inconspicuous piece of arid land in Gujarat contains one of the biggest caches of dinosaur fossils. Join us on a royal tour of prehistoric times at Balasinor in Gujarat. By Sumeet Keswani
When Jurassic Park hit theatres in 1993, it captured the imagination of people around the world. As a five-year-old kid in a small town of Kutch (Gujarat), I wasn’t spared by the charms of a world inhabited by dinosaurs. Around the time I was introduced to the colossal T-Rex and the brainy Velociraptors on the big screen, I made up my mind that I’d, one day, touch a dinosaur fossil. I wanted to hold a tangible piece of that history in my hands, a part of the anatomy of a creature that ruled the Earth until 65 million years ago. It seemed like a pipe dream then, of course. What I didn’t know was that one of the world’s largest dinosaur fossil sites lay unexplored in my home state’s backyard.
Fast forward to 2018: I find myself driving down the dusty roads of Balasinor, a part of Mahisagar district in Gujarat. The terrain isn’t very different from the arid desertscape of Kutch, 400km away, with an abundance of the invasive cactus species, prosopis juliflora. I’m heading to Rahioli village, reputed to be the third-largest excavation site of dinosaur fossils in the world. Their discovery was a matter of pure chance. In 1981, a team of researchers from the Geological Survey of India was studying the area for its wealth of minerals when they stumbled upon remains from the late Cretaceous period. The word spread as quickly in the palaeontology community as it did among the Rahioli villagers. They did not quite understand what it all meant, but they excavated bones and eggs, at will and rather recklessly, and took them home, hoping to make a few bucks some day. “Some locals even took to worshipping dinosaur eggs since they looked like shiv linga,” says my guide, Princess Aaliya Babi, who also happens to be an erstwhile royal from the region.
Balasinor was a princely state until Independence and was ruled by the Babi dynasty. Sometime in the 1980s, villagers mining an abandoned piece of land for limestone, found oddly-shaped rocks. Believing them to be canonballs, they approached the royal family, who rejected the finds as obsolete souvenirs of war in the post-Independence era. “Those rocks were actually dinosaur eggs! I wish my father had accepted them,” laments Babi as we arrive at the site. The 72-acre land, where the first eggs were discovered, is now protected by the forest department and called the Dinosaur Fossil Park. A rather unimaginative section of the media has named it the ‘Jurassic Park of India’. We enter through an underwhelming gate with a pterodactyl (flying reptile) perched on top and a sauropod (quadrupedal herbivorous dinosaur) standing guard on the side. This, however, turns out to be the only infrastructure in the park, apart from a few gazebos to provide shade from the relentless summer sun. The park itself is nothing but parched land with rocks jutting out of the ground. My chauffeur looks visibly perplexed. Why have we made the 90-km journey from Ahmedabad? What’s here to see?
The answers lie embedded in the rocks, some of which have been fenced by the forest department at Babi’s insistence. On their surface, white and pink speckled textures emerge from a 65-million-year slumber. A femur bone of a theropod (meat-eating bipedal dinosaur) here, a razor-sharp claw there; there’s even a set of vertebrae and an evident layer of skin covering one rock. Some metres away, clusters of distinct white rings suggest a nest. There are thousands of such fossilised eggs on this land, Babi tells me.
In fact, the area is regarded as the second- largest dinosaur nesting site in the world. Unfortunately, there are also many, many signs of vandalism. That explains the fences.
The park has revealed fossils of at least six to seven dinosaur species over the years. But there is one that stands taller than the rest. In 2003, a team of American palaeontologists realised that one of the recovered species, a stocky theropod with a peculiar head crest, had never been found anywhere else. In honour of the land where it lived, it was named rajasaurus narmadensis, simply translated as ‘the princely reptile of Narmada’. Nearly 30 feet long, the carnivore would have given the T-Rex a run for its money. (Another exclusive species found here, the rahiolisaurus gujaratensis, has been named after the village.) A partial skeleton of a rajasaurus, with a nearly complete skull, rests safely at the Indian Museum, Kolkata. Meanwhile, a nearby dinosaur museum in Balasinor has been languishing in neglect for years. It’s yet to see completion, and holds no fossils whatsoever.
Although ‘dinosaur tourism’ is on the rise in the state, not all tourists respect the fossils. “A lot of domestic tourists come here and remark, ‘Aa toh pathra chhe badha (they’re just rocks!)’,” says Babi, understandably upset. One of the groups went so far as to play catch with a remarkably intact fossil, which Babi had painstakingly cleaned over months, and broke it in two. They were kicked out.
Babi’s personal collection of fossils, including an array of eggs, is exhibited at her palatial home, which has been converted into a heritage homestay. Most tourists and palaeontologists visiting the site stay here, the only luxury property in the region. As I hold an almost perfect theropod egg (smaller and tear-drop shaped, as compared to the huge, spherical sauropod eggs) snugly in my cupped palms, Babi tells me how she acquired her most prized fossil. On one of her tours, she noticed a local woman using a rather peculiar pestle to grind her masala (spices). On closer inspection, it turned out to be the finest specimen of fossilised dinosaur egg she had seen. After a lot of coaxing and a barter that cost her a royal set of mortar and pestle, she convinced the woman to give up her ‘magical culinary tool’. Babi now keeps her ‘masala egg’ tucked into a velvet box lined with cotton.
As we make our way back to the car, my chauffeur says that he, too, took a stroll around the park with Babi’s driver. “Yahaan toh sirf pathar hain (there are just rocks here),” he says, disappointed. I nod in amused agreement, as I check an improbable item off my bucket list: ‘Touch a dinosaur fossil’.
Princess Aaliya Babi charges Rs 500 per person for a guided tour. Timings: 10.30am and 4.30pm every day; available on advance booking.